This week, ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, we take stock of our flag bikinis, baseball gloves, hamburgers, and fireworks. Take a moment this Independence Day to take stock of the notable American feminists who have fought for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of gender.
It's been 239 years since Americans started writing and rewriting laws and determining the wider world's definition of the word freedom, and the United States has frequently been on the cutting edge of defending the rights of its citizens. Just as the Fourth of July exists to recognize America's history of challenging oppression, so should it exist to allow for conversation about how we can become more free and more "created equal," as Thomas Jefferson suggested in the Declaration of Independence.
America wasn't the first country with women's suffrage, and we still haven't elected a female president. Each week, a new debate crops up in which college-educated American men campaign to limit the reproductive rights of adult women in this country. Suffice to say, we still have a lot of work to do.
But there are a select group of women who stood (and still stand) on the front lines of the struggle for gender equality, let the world hear them roar, and empower women in their wake to challenge the status quo.
1. Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams is what I like to call one of America's Founding Feminists. Educated at home, as custom demanded in the 18th century, Adams would eventually become an advocate for public schooling for young girls. She managed the farm and the family finances when husband future President John Adams was away as a representative of Massachusetts in the Continental Congress. In a letter to her husband in March of 1776, Abigail urged him not to overlook women as congress prepared laws for the infant nation. She wrote,
I long to hear that you have declared an independency -- and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.
When her husband ignored her requests, Adams went around him and wrote another letter to a friend suggesting he petition congress on behalf of women. Though women's rights would continue to be a back-burner issue in the United States for some time, Abigail Adams never rested in her pursuit of gender equality under the law.
2. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah was born the daughter of a single, teenage mother in Jim Crow Mississippi. She's now the first black female billionaire in world history. She began hosting a local morning talk show in Chicago in 1983, and by 1986 the show had been renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, and was being broadcast nationally. It became the highest-rated talk show in American history. In a 2013 documentary, Oprah said about her own feminism, "I never did consider or call myself a feminist, but I don’t think you can really be a woman in this world and not be."
Magazines, blockbuster films, and an entire sociological premise (The Oprah Effect) later, Oprah was not just an important figure in breaking the glass ceiling in the 80s, but is also a role model for every female entrepreneur who might be considered destined for something less.
3. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first Jewish female justice on the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993 after her nomination by then President Bill Clinton, and the Notorious RBG has been setting serious judicial precedent for women's (and human) rights ever since. Long before she accepted the position on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was an outspoken tour de force for feminism.
My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the '40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.
She graduated tied for first in her class from Colombia Law School in 1959, and was almost immediately (and hilariously) rejected for a clerk position under Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter because she was a woman. Ten years later, she co-founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter, the first legal journal dedicated fully to women's rights and gender equality, and in 1972 she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
During her career as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg has been a consistent voice for women's rights, reproductive and otherwise, and says there will be enough female Supreme Court Justices when there are nine. She's also totally on board with the Notorious RBG persona.
4. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou spoke at my college on the first night of freshman year. She challenged us to find real value in ourselves and our peers, to create art through our differences, and to embrace the surprises that come from being immersed in a world full of talented people. In retrospect, she could not have been more right. That was the value of shelling out thousands of dollars for a fancy piece of paper.
Reading her biography is like reading the greatest hits of the most accomplished woman of the 20th century. She grew up in the depression-era South, studied dance with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, and even became San Francisco's first African-American female cable car conductor.
She joined the Harlem Writer's Guild in the 50s and by 1970 had published her bestselling autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which explored the experience of growing up as a woman, and a black woman, in America. In 1972, she wrote the screenplay and composed the score for Georgia, Georgia — the first screenplay by an African-American woman ever to be filmed.
Here's an excerpt from her poem "Still I'll Rise" that sums up her contributions to feminism:
Does my sexiness upset you?Does it come as a surpriseThat I dance like I’ve got diamondsAt the meeting of my thighs?
5. Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton has been criticized for having an absence of a track record on women's rights, but if you look at several of the bills she co-sponsored as a Senator, Clinton has consistently been an advocate for equal pay for equal work. She was one of the original co-sponsors of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. She introduced the Fair Paycheck Act in 2005 and 2007. In her keynote speech at the 2015 Women In The World Summit, Clinton highlighted the big picture benefits of equal pay for women. She said,
We know that when women are strong, families are strong. When families are strong, countries are strong. So, this is about more than unleashing the full potential of women… If we close the gap that remains in the workforce, between men and women, our economy in the United States would grow by 10% by 2030.
Imagine a little girl waking up in the morning to discover that the leader of the free world is a woman. What things could that little girl achieve knowing that there is no job in America that is out of her reach because of her gender?
6. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox, best known for her portrayal of Sophia Burset on Neflix's Orange Is The New Black, is also the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. In 2010, Cox became the first African-American transgender person to produce and star in her own television show.
Cox is more than just a ridiculously talented and hardworking actress/producer, she is also a women's studies scholar. She speaks candidly about her life before transitioning, about being a voice for the LGBTQ community, and about women's rights. In an interview with Dame Magazine, Cox summed up her experience as a feminist,
I absolutely considered myself a feminist before I transitioned … I think it’s really just, ‘Who is a woman? And are we just our bodies? Are we just our ovaries or lack thereof?’ And womanhood is so much more complicated than that.
Look for Cox in her next starring role as Cameron Wirth, a successful, Ivy League-educated transgender defense attorney in Doubt, a TV movie from the executive producers of Grey's Anatomy.
7. Beyoncé Knowles
Beyoncé brought the conversation about feminism to the forefront of pop culture's consciousness when she performed in front of a giant projection of the word "FEMINIST" at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. As of May 2015, her net worth was calculated to be approximately $250 million. Her songs are full of lyrics about female empowerment and sex-positivity. Last year, she spoke to CNN about her coming to terms with what it means to be a feminist.
I’ve always considered myself a feminist, although I was always afraid of that word because people put so much on it. When honestly, it's very simple. It's just a person that believes in equality for men and women.
Her constant visibility and Queen Bey status make her openness about feminism and its effects on her life so very important.
In 2013, an Economist/YouGov poll found that only 38 percent of American women identify as feminist. Let's all work to convert the other 62 percent before the United States turns 250 years old. In the meantime, check out this video from YouTuber Marina Watanabe as she sardonically clears up some misconceptions about what "feminism" actually means.
Happy Independence Day, everyone!
Images: Getty Images (6); First Ladies' Library/Public Domain